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Turtle Island Quartet Blend Classical, Jazz Traditions

Analise Lipari | Tuesday, February 10, 2009

On Sunday, students at Notre Dame and Saint Mary’s will have the chance to see a performance by one of the most versatile groups in contemporary classical music.

The Turtle Island String Quartet, who won a Grammy last year for their crossover album “A Love Supreme,” will arrive at the DeBartolo Performing Arts Center, Feb. 15th for an afternoon of genre-bending string stylings. The group is scheduled to appear with jazz pianist and songwriter Cyrus Chestnut to perform their “Icons” program.

Yo-Yo Ma has called the Quartet “a unified voice that truly breaks new ground,” and the quartet’s Web site quotes the St. Louis Post-Dispatch as saying, “It must have been like this when Beethoven was taking Vienna by storm – the exhilaration of seeing the future of classical music unfold before your eyes and ears.”

No doubt listeners in the Leighton Concert Hall will enjoy the afternoon’s touring program, which is set to excite audiences with its multifaceted approach. “Icons” was designed by the Quartet as the latest in a series of cross-genre musical ventures, and will reinterpret both classic and contemporary pieces. “Icons” will blend the music of Brahms’ piano quintet with strains of gospel, while bluegrass influences like Flatt and Scruggs and Bill Monroe will intersect with names like John Coltrane, Miles Davis and Duke Ellington.

Founded in 1985, the Turtle Island Quartet has grown in fame and prestige over the years for its ability to blend, refashion and revolutionize chamber music for strings. The group consists of four members: David Balakrishnan on the violin, Mads Tolling on the violin, Jeremy Kittle on the viola and Mark Summer on the cello. It was Balakrishnan who first conceived of the Quartet while earning his master’s at Antioch University West. Eventually, the group would expand from its humble university roots to become one of the most high profile string quartets in American classical music today.

The “Icons” program is only one example of the Quartet’s ability to cross and blend different genres while retaining its classical core. The group has experimented with music styles as diverse as Indian and Latin American, and has experimented with swing, funk, rhythm and blues, folk, hip-hop and more. They have also made multiple albums with various labels, and their film, radio and television credits include Garrison Keillor’s “Prairie Home Companion” for National Public Radio. Even the name of the Quartet, “Turtle Island,” draws from diverse influences – the image derives from a creation myth commonly found in Native American folklore.

Students interested in exploring more of the Turtle Island Quartet’s music can explore any of their more than a dozen recorded albums. Highlights include “A Love Supreme” (2008), which takes a raucous, energetic approach to the music of John Coltrane, and “4+Four” (2006), the group’s first recording with the Telarc label. “4+Four” ranges from European Jazz to the Beatles, and is a collaborative effort between the Turtle Island Quartet and the Ying Quartet.

The afternoon’s additional performer, Cyrus Chestnut, is a high-profile American jazz artist in his own right. An alumnus of Boston’s prestigious Berklee College of Music, Chestnut has toured with such artists as Wynton Marsalis and the Betty Carter Trio. Chestnut has also recorded or performed with a variety of contemporary jazz, pop, R&B and gospel artists, including Bette Midler, Isaac Hayes, Chick Corea, Dizzy Gillespie and others. Interested listeners can check out Chestnut’s first album, 2006’s “Genuine Chestnut,” or his 2007 album “Cyrus Plays Elvis” before the show.

“Icons” will take place on Sunday, Feb. 15th at 2:00 p.m. in the Leighton Concert Hall. Tickets cost $38, $30 for faculty and staff, $29 for seniors and $15 for all students. For more information, visit performingarts.nd.edu.